As the first round of debates among Democratic candidates for president clearly showed, the intellectual vitality of the Democratic Party right now is coming from progressives. On issue after issue, the vast majority of the candidates embraced views that have been seen as progressive priorities for years—whether that may have been a pledge to provide healthcare for all or vows to repeal tax cuts benefiting the rich, whether it was prioritizing combating our climate crisis or seeking to combat economic, gender, and racial inequality in America.
Indeed, as the uneven or faltering performance of its champions showed, it appears that the center is withering, offering only the formulations of the past that many see as having produced much of the inequality and many of the divisions and challenges of today.
During the debates and indeed in recent years, it has been hard to identify one new “centrist” idea, one new proposal from the center that better deals with economic insecurity, climate, growth, equity, education, health, or inclusion. You won’t find them in part because the ideas of the center are so based on compromise, and for most of the past decade it has been clear, there is no longer a functioning, constructive right of center group with which to compromise.
That is in part the fault of the corruption of the GOP and its near exclusive service to the one percent and corporate interests. It is also due, however, to the fact that so many products of Clinton and Obama-era centrism primarily served those elites as well—from the Clinton era repeal of Glass-Steagall to the failure of Obama to really push hard to implement meaningful financial reforms after the crash. The innovation of “Third Way” or New Democrats—a group of which I was part—was, well-intentioned as it may have been on some level, also seeking a way to buy into the popularity of Reagan-era policies (damaging as they were).
Of course, back at the outset of the Clinton administration, it did not seem that way to a lot of us. We had seen the party’s left fail in election after election, and the policies it offered grow discredited. Unions were shrinking. Opposition to free trade seemed a loser as globalism took off and the markets we needed for growth were overseas. Beating up on the corporations that were creating jobs seemed like a flawed job-creation strategy. Being willing to acknowledge we needed a more market-oriented approach seemed appropriate for a world that was at what Francis Fukuyama had dubbed as the “End of History.”
Clinton’s economic team, of which I was a member as a senior official in the Commerce Department, illustrated this well, led by a Wall Street trader and manned by a group of people who almost exclusively all went to work on Wall Street afterwards… until they and their views were returned to power by Barack Obama, the presidential candidate who, at the time of his election, raised more money from the financial community than any other in history. Under both Clinton and Obama, inequality grew, the rich got richer, power was concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer Americans—not as badly perhaps as under Reagan, Bush, or Trump, but enough to continue disturbing underlying trends.
To put it another way, while the origins of many of the policy initiatives that systematically led to an economy and a government that increasingly served the richest Americans and corporations lay with the right, with Milton Friedman and supply-siders and subsequent campaigns to institutionalize “small government” views, the Democratic Party often went along with those views when it suited their leadership, especially when they needed cash and support for campaigns. Indeed, being “moderate” or “centrist” has come to be a wink-and-a-nod euphemism for openness to the trickle-down lie that if you take care of the top of society markets will ultimately make everything right for everyone else.
As a result, both Democratic and GOP administrations of the past 40 years bear joint responsibility for contributing to the burgeoning inequality divide in America, growing economic insecurity, flat wages, plummeting real minimum wages, and faltering social mobility.
These policies have left 90 percent of Americans effectively out of the money, excluded from the real upside in U.S. growth, since the 1970s. They ended the period of the 1940s and '50s and '60s when parents could expect their kids to have better educations, better jobs, better lives.
Now, most Americans recognize that the system no longer works for them—that it is, as Elizabeth Warren rightly notes, "rigged." Anger with that is what Trump tapped into—that, and overt and ugly racism. But of course, he did it as a con, as a way to win support for even more radical theft by the rich.
As we look with clear eyes at what must be addressed if their children are to have any chance of a better life in America, we realize that the old "compromises" were the problem, not the solution, and today, bold, effective action is required. We have to step away from the notion that the only useful metrics for measuring the success of a society is whether GDP is growing or the markets are booming.
The new priorities are being identified and best argued by voices from the progressive wing of the party. No one is doing it better among presidential candidates right now than the clear winners of this past week’s debates, Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, but other top performers like Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro, and Cory Booker are contributing important points of view to the mix.
So too are new voices in the House of Representatives, most notably Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Bernie Sanders, of course, has been a champion of some of these views for some time and deserves credit for that regardless of reasonable concerns some might have about his tactics, his framing, and the approach of many of his supporters.
The ideas flowing from the progressives range from how we rise to the urgent need to protect the climate (the Green New Deal) to how we combat inequality, from how we ensure that the richest pay their fair share in taxes and how to guarantee that the poorest and the middle class have a genuine shot at their fair share. They frame a new way to look at trade policy that is more sensitive to the dislocations that unfettered free trade causes. Or they address needs of groups underserved or neglected by the market, as in Harris’ proposal to increase teachers wages by $13,500 a year or Warren’s plan to relieve the crushing burden of student debt.
In short, they include meeting the minimum basic requirements of a 21st-century social contract. That means ensuring everyone has a right to health care, to dignity and security in their retirements, to a job that can support them and their family if they are willing to work for it, and to the affordable education they require and that we should all want them to have.
Finally, the views of progressive leaders have underscored, as they should, items on the agenda of the GOP to which the response of the Democratic Party must include no hint of compromise because the issue is one of right or wrong, not right or left. These include guarantees of equality under the law for all. They include a new push to end to corruption in Washington including the end to the idea that president is above the law or that the rich have the right to a different set of rules from the rest of us.
They demand an end to voter suppression and to the false notion, promulgated in the profoundly flawed Citizens United decision, that “money is speech.” They include, in the wake of the abuses of the Trump Era, an even profounder respect for the Constitution and for human rights. They include having public officials whose loyalties are to America first and not foreign powers with which they have murky ties that we can never know.
These are hardly—as the GOP tries to characterize them—radical ideas. Indeed, most of them are the ideas the GOP embraced under Eisenhower. In fact, if we want to be accurate, they should not be characterized as the ideas of the “left” or “right.” They are—virtually all of these ideas—based on views that polls repeatedly show are shared by the vast majority of Americans. In other words, the “center” as in the center of gravity of American politics, has shifted. Old labels don’t apply and in fact, mislead.
The point is we need to listen to this new American majority. There is profound wisdom and common sense in their beliefs and great motivators to drive future growth in their shared aspirations. They support ideas that some might call progressive but are actually deeply, profoundly, essentially American...the ideas that have made us great, helped us fix what is broken in our society, and driven progress. Teddy Roosevelt understood. He spoke of achieving “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Of course, he also said, “A great democracy has got to be progressive or it will soon cease to be great or a democracy.”
The failures of the approaches of the past 40 years demand a shift, or we risk making permanent divisions within our society that will put a permanent end to the American dream and render us just another oligarchy, at the unending mercy of the most selfish in our society.
A generational watershed is called for—much as the one that ushered in the New Deal or for that matter the Reagan Revolution. Fortunately, a rebirth of creative thinking about what kind of nation we want to be is underway, one that actually unites most Americans because unlike many of the prevalent policies of the past half century it actually benefits most Americans. While it may be on the surface, a rejection of what once was called “centrism,” it is an embrace of core ideas and priorities central to most of us, a path to ending divisions, fixing what is broken in our system and positioning us for greater prosperity and strength as a society in the years ahead. (For a great example of how “red state” Americans are more open than widely thought to such views see Edward Luce’s current article in the Financial Times Magazine “America’s New Redneck Rebellion.”)
Candidates who recognize this fact are best poised not only to win in 2020 but to re-unify the country and most importantly, to begin to undo the damage not just of the Trump years but of the decades before it that led to this worst of all presidents and presidencies. It should also be noted that they are all Democrats, because the Republican Party has proven itself to be, empty populist double-talk aside, no longer the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt or Eisenhower, to be a party whose current leaders actions have solely served the new American oligarchs who fund it and who believe the lone purpose of government is to further help those who need no help at all.